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Old 08-25-2008, 01:22 PM   #1
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Default How are adventure game "puzzles" separate from "story"?

In light of recent discussions about adventure game puzzles, and spurred by a conversation I was just having with RLacey, I've come up with the following hypothesis:

What we term as "puzzles" in a well-designed adventure game are actually an aspect of its plot, rather than a discrete gameplay element.

My reasoning is as such: if we attempt to differentiate what makes an "adventure game" different from a "puzzle game", we tend to find that the puzzles in the latter can exist and be enjoyed separately from any kind of narrative framework. This is not the case with adventure games, because the same puzzle in one game is not guaranteed to be as fun to solve when present in another game.

Generally speaking, we think of puzzles in adventure games as obstacles to getting to the end of a story. And yet, many non-interactive stories -- mysteries in particular -- work in the same way. The very purpose of a plot, after all, is to produce a conflict for the protagonist to resolve at the end. Puzzles and plot in an adventure game, therefore, are one and the same, with the only difference being that it is the player who resolves the conflict at hand, rather than simply the protagonist. Hence, I'd like to eschew the agreed-upon definition of "story+puzzles+exploration" in favour of something like "story+exploration", which I believe is more accurate.

This definition makes a lot of sense in my mind, because the majority of complaints about adventure game puzzles are that they clash with the narrative in some way... whether it's making the player character do something that's contrary to what we've come to know about them or having to accomplish a task that has little to do with the main conflict of the story. Likewise, it extends the definition of what one can actually do in an adventure game when we think of the different kinds of stories we can tell besides mysteries... which means more innovations for the genre.

Thoughts, anyone?
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Old 08-25-2008, 02:42 PM   #2
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I think they are still seperate.

Solving the puzzles and exploration are how we as players interact with the plot.

The plot or continuation of the plot is the reward for overcoming the obstacles/puzzles.

They have to be a distinct gamplay element because without them you are left with a non-interactive movie or a book.

I think what people mean is that it is preferrable if the there is an internal logic to the puzzles in keeping with the plot and characters you are playing. i.e In most detective games it's not unheard of to dust for fingerprints, question witnesses etc, but having your character bake cookies in the middle of an investigation might jar with the ongoing narrative, seem out of character and thus lose the immersion factor.

I also think there is also plenty of scope of adventure games outwith the traditional detective genre that would be innovative.
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Old 08-25-2008, 02:49 PM   #3
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Sure, that's a valid way of looking at puzzles.

But let me ask you: why isn't exploration part of the story too? Stories aren't just about conflicts, they're also about settings. If I read a short story which paints a vivid picture of a world the character's a part of, and that world's really interesting, I say "Great story!". Why make the division between environments and activities in those environments, when they're all just parts of the story?

For that matter, what about pixel hunts? How is that not part of the story? Isn't the character looking around for something to use part of that character's story? You create a collection of random junk, only for that junk to turn out to be useful in the end. That might not be a particularly compelling story, but hey, it's a story.

What about minigames? Aren't those a part of the story?


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Old 08-25-2008, 03:11 PM   #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Lucien21 View Post
They have to be a distinct gamplay element because without them you are left with a non-interactive movie or a book.
As I said, many movies and books have puzzles in them. The difference is that in games, the player plays a part in solving those puzzles, whereas in non-interactive media, the protagonists do it themselves.

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Originally Posted by MoriartyL View Post
But let me ask you: why isn't exploration part of the story too? Stories aren't just about conflicts, they're also about settings. If I read a short story which paints a vivid picture of a world the character's a part of, and that world's really interesting, I say "Great story!". Why make the division between environments and activities in those environments, when they're all just parts of the story?
I meant "exploration" defined in the same manner that Marek did in the article I linked to above; that is to say, freedom of movement. This is the element games possess that differentiates them from movies and books. Sorry if I was unclear.

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For that matter, what about pixel hunts? [...] What about minigames? Aren't those a part of the story?
Both of these things are often considered under the umbrella term of "puzzles" in adventure games. Same rules apply.
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Old 08-25-2008, 03:20 PM   #5
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So all that is a part of the story, right. And as for the "freedom of movement" thing, I don't see how that's relevant. The world is part of the story, regardless of how you access it. So what isn't a part of the story? And if you can't answer that, then why don't we go ahead and define adventures as "story"?
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Old 08-25-2008, 03:33 PM   #6
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Well, an adventure is a story. An adventure game is a story that you interact with.
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Old 08-25-2008, 04:06 PM   #7
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So how can this definition distinguish adventure games from other game genres?

Maybe let's just make a compromise and say that adventure games are puzzling stories with exploration.
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Old 08-25-2008, 04:49 PM   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Squinky View Post
What we term as "puzzles" in a well-designed adventure game are actually an aspect of its plot, rather than a discrete gameplay element.
Sometimes yes, and sometimes no.

To use a specific game as an example, granted an old one, there were puzzles in Black Dahlia that contributed to the plot. And there were puzzles that were there simply for puzzle's sake.

I can't think of a puzzle in any of the Myst games that actually contributed to "plot"

Yet almost all of the puzzles in Still Life were related to "plot". or at least getting the story to the next level.

Take your choice.
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Old 08-26-2008, 12:08 AM   #9
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I don't see plot as gameplay in 99% of adventure games. You have no influence over it.

It's a fixed variable that never changes and is only delayed by the puzzles and exploration.

Maybe if the plot/narrative changed by your actions you could class it a gameplay?

Heavy Rain sounds like that approach where the story changes by your actions and as such puzzles and plot become inseperable because the puzzle is shaping the story to your satisfaction.
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Old 08-26-2008, 02:12 AM   #10
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I think that a difference between the three aspects can be extremely useful. If the story, but I'll say the storytelling, it's what captivate the attention of the player, the fil rouge that, in the end, keep him close and interested, the very core of any narrative-oriented medium, and if the exploration is what gives the player the feeling of immersion (I'm not looking at the room, 'cause I'm in the room, I can visit it thoroughly), the puzzles are the device by which the player inter-act with the environment, finally realizing, giving substance to the feeling of immersion.

For example, a dialogue puzzle fulfill the need of a character interaction, whilst an environment puzzle fulfill the need of material manipulation and so on.

So, if their final purpose is to substantiate the player immersion/presence in the game, when they're poorly designed they ruin the suspension of disbelief eventually spoiling the final experience of the game (but it can be a movie or a book: also in these media there are instances that serve for the immersion/presence of the viewer/reader).
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Old 08-26-2008, 02:37 AM   #11
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One last question: If it is valid to see puzzles and exploration as part of a story, then is it possible to tell a good story in an adventure game with nothing but puzzle-game puzzles and walking around? Which is to say, no characters except as elements in a puzzle or a scene, no dialogue, no cutscenes, no backstory, etc. Why shouldn't it be possible? (And by "a good story", I mean "a good story".)
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Old 08-26-2008, 02:59 AM   #12
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I'd answer no. As I stated, puzzles and exploration are there to give the player a true sense of reality, to enhance his experience of the story by giving him the capability to interact with the environment, and thus making him to feel not like the character, but the character himself.

Without story nor characters, puzzles and exploration - which, as I see them, are nothing more than devices - will be reduced to mere formalisms without any substance - and, if it's a thing that the literature teach us, the form has always to be sustained by a meaning, thus becoming meaning itself. Otherwise, it's just an exercise without any artistic value.
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Old 08-26-2008, 03:14 AM   #13
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Quote:
Originally Posted by MoriartyL View Post
One last question: If it is valid to see puzzles and exploration as part of a story, then is it possible to tell a good story in an adventure game with nothing but puzzle-game puzzles and walking around? Which is to say, no characters except as elements in a puzzle or a scene, no dialogue, no cutscenes, no backstory, etc. Why shouldn't it be possible? (And by "a good story", I mean "a good story".)
Yeah. It'd be a pretty surreal story, but what the heck, why couldn't it be good?

Edit: "Puzzle-game puzzles", eh? That would be more difficult.
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Old 08-26-2008, 04:09 AM   #14
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I said that just because otherwise you'd think there'd be dialogue puzzles and such, which you can sneak cutscenes and dialogue and old-school storytelling into. But regardless, it's theoretically possible. And if you can tell a story with just puzzles and exploring, then what's all that other stuff that has been called "storytelling" in this thread?

Andrea, I think everything has narrative substance. Any kind of gameplay forms a story, whether that is a story the designer intended or a story which emerges unexpectedly from the playing. If I wander around a town, you might call it "exploration gameplay for the sake of immersion" but I might call it a setting. If I solve a puzzle, even a very puzzle-y puzzle like in Myst, you might call it "puzzle gameplay" but I might call it a "cerebral plot", like how in the TV show House he'll come up with all sorts of clever solutions to problems. Trying to figure out how things work, that's storytelling. Seeing where things are, that's storytelling. Looking for opportunities, that's storytelling. Everything is storytelling, and whether it's good storytelling or bad storytelling just depends on how it's used.

So what's all the other stuff? Other than puzzles and exploration, there's: interaction with characters, perception of objects, which isn't quite a puzzle in itself, mini-games and cutscenes. These are all types of gameplay (or at least elements of game design), and "story" doesn't need to enter into the list. Story is the macro level, where you look at how everything fits together and see what you're trying to say with it. When we look at the actual structure of an adventure game, we can give it this definition:

Puzzles + exploration + interaction + (optionally) perception

(Minigames and cutscenes are put everywhere, so they don't really need to be in the definition.)
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Old 08-26-2008, 04:28 AM   #15
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MoriartyL: While I agree very much with your flexible point of view of the adventure genre, I think it should be underlined that a good definition of anything must list qualities that are both sufficient and neccesary conditions of indentifing it. The definition you now proposed as well as Squinky's are not good definitions for adventure games - in both cases the listed elements aren't sufficient. Although I think yours is better.

Edit: I'm starting to have secondary thoughts that maybe your definition is actually sufficient, but it all depends on how to understand the very general term "exploration". I mean, exploring what some buttons and levers do in a puzzle is a form of exploration too. Yet we want to have something more than just a puzzle game.

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Old 08-26-2008, 04:32 AM   #16
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Quote:
Originally Posted by MoriartyL View Post
Trying to figure out how things work, that's storytelling. Seeing where things are, that's storytelling. Looking for opportunities, that's storytelling. Everything is storytelling, and whether it's good storytelling or bad storytelling just depends on how it's used.
I disagree: storytelling is the conscious act of an author as perceived by the conscious act of the reader/viewer/player (a generic and virtual receiver). So, if the storytelling is a co-operational act between an author (who sets out the story, the characters, the plot) and a receiver (who eventually interprets all those things, signifying them), storytelling isn't everything: if in a book or movie every device can be a vehicle of storytelling, I think that the same couldn't be true for interactive stories. The choices of the player on how to interact with the environments (trial and error, meaningless walks from location to location in search of clues, etc. etc.) are not part of the storytelling - the author didn't conceive these segments nor the player, by playing them, signifies them - but devices used by the storytelling to substantiate itself.

Maybe we're saying the same thing with different words, but this kind of differentiation is kind of important to me.
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Old 08-26-2008, 08:58 AM   #17
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Well, as much thought as I've given the concept, I've been loathe to nail down a definition, perhaps because I feel as if I'm trying to divorce myself from puzzles entirely without denouncing them as rubbish. I think puzzles are different for a number of people, but I think what I have trouble accepting are abstract problems that are meant to simulate the act of doing something in a game to resolve an immediate conflict. Clever is all fine and dandy, but common sense gets abandoned when the way is barred by a totally nonsensical device that either needs to be constructed or repaired/corrected in order to perform a simple task.

Now, I haven't read the entire thread yet, so I'll go back and check it out in a while. I have to get some stuff done around here today. Laters.
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Old 08-26-2008, 01:54 PM   #18
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Quote:
Originally Posted by AndreaDraco83 View Post
The choices of the player on how to interact with the environments (trial and error, meaningless walks from location to location in search of clues, etc. etc.) are not part of the storytelling - the author didn't conceive these segments nor the player, by playing them, signifies them - but devices used by the storytelling to substantiate itself.
So if I understand you correctly, for you "storytelling" is one element of the adventure's design, to be given equal weight to puzzles and exploring. It is quite possible I am misinterpreting; if so, please correct me. I'm curious: if storytelling is one thing and puzzles are another, then where do you draw the line between the two? And where do you draw the line between storytelling and exploring? Or to put it more simply: what bits of game design qualify as "storytelling"? You've said that dialogue puzzles do not. Wandering around an area also (I presume) does not. What does? Cutscenes?
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Old 08-27-2008, 01:44 AM   #19
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As a matter of fact, I give much more importance to storytelling (the glue that holds everything together) than puzzles or exploration. And yes, I quite mis-interpreted me:

Storytelling: script, dialogue, cutscenes, general direction of the game in and only if it makes the story advance/the character develops/etc. etc.

Non-storytelling puzzle: I'm stuck at a puzzle. I visit for the 100th time the same person to ask him/her/it the same question, in a desperate search for a clue, or try for the 100th time the same objects on the same hotspots (the puzzle - in my humble opinion - become part of the storytelling only after having been resolved - before they are mere devices)

Non storytelling exploration: I've missed a vital clue, so I re-visit each location, looking under every couch and in every drawer. The first exploration of a location is surely part of the story, but meaningless wandering around in search for a clue (see: it's always a matter of puzzles and being stuck at them) is not, at least to me, 'cause it doesn't make the story advance/the character develops etc. etc. It's, also in this case, a device to enhance the player's presence within the game world.
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Old 08-27-2008, 03:11 AM   #20
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Quote:
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As a matter of fact, I give much more importance to storytelling (the glue that holds everything together) than puzzles or exploration. And yes, I quite mis-interpreted me
Same here! I have been reading this thread and, sorry, but the beginning sounds like wishful thinking. Sure, it would be nice if puzzles were integrated into the story and part of it. But, usually they are not, and they very often interrupt the flow of the story. Even good puzzles, like the lockpicking in Still Life (I found it good, at least).

For me, it's like saying: the many hours of driving are part of the holidays, too! Well, at one level that is true, but they certainly feel like interruptions of the fun parts.
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